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Friday, May 28, 2010

Ben Sheets and the New Normal

Tommy Rancel at Bloomberg Sports has a post up about Ben Sheets, noting that Sheets' strong May could be the result of a greater willingness to go to his change up.  Having watched Sheets all season, it's clear that he isn't the pitcher he was before missing all 2009 with a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow.  With each start it becomes more and more likely that his pre-2009 stuff is gone and that he'll need to become a different type of pitcher to have success in the majors.

Below is a table of Sheets' pitch selection from the 2008 season when he made 31 starts with a 3.09 ERA and 3.94 xFIP:

Ben Sheets: 2008 pitch selection
TypeCountSelectionVelocity (mph)Vertical (in)Horizontal (in)

And here is a table indicating the effectiveness of each pitch:

Ben Sheets:  2008 results by pitch type
Type Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FA 1864 62.6% 67.5% 49.9% 6.9% 22.4% 20.6%
CU 850 28.6% 64.2% 43.6% 11.2% 15.1% 17.4%
CH 235 7.9% 59.6% 47.7% 12.3% 12.3% 23.0%
SI 27 0.9% 33.3% 29.6% 14.8% 14.8% 0.0%
FF 1 0.0% 100.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

As you can see, Sheets was mainly a fastball-curveball pitcher, throwing one of those two pitches over 90% of the time.  According to Fangraphs' pitch type value data, his 93 MPH fastball rated as one win above average per 100 fastballs thrown, while his curve and change up were each a notch below average.  He was able to throw his fastball, curve, and change for strikes, throwing each pitch in the zone between 60 and 67% of the time.

So far this season he's been significantly less effective than in 2008, but there are signs that he's turned things around.  His year-to-date xFIP is a mediocre 4.66, but his xFIP for May is a respectable 4.05, a figure which includes his disastrous May 2 start, in which he gave up 9 runs in 3.2 innings against the Blue Jays.  Below is a table of Sheets' pitch selection for 2010:

Ben Sheets: 2010 pitch selection
Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in)

FF 505 53.8% 91.4 9.40 -4.66

CU 303 32.3% 78.7 -5.47 6.00

CH 93 9.9% 84.7 5.24 -5.38

SI 35 3.7% 89.8 6.50 -8.12

FC 2 0.2% 84.9 4.81 0.74

And here is the effectiveness of each pitch:

Ben Sheets:  2010 results by pitch type
TypeCountSelectionStrikeSwingWhiffFoulIn Play

Three things jump out at me.  First, is the loss in velocity of Sheets' fastball; he's lost nearly 1.5 MPH off his average fastball without picking up extra movement.  Secondly, he's throwing his fastball less frequently, which is a good thing considering the loss in velocity of the pitch.  Lastly, he's been more effective with his curveball, getting a bigger vertical and horizontal break and is using the pitch more frequently.  He's missed the strike zone more with his curve (and the rest of his pitches) than in 2008, but he's also getting more swings and misses.

In his last 4 starts, in which he's given up only 7 runs in 25 innings with 29 strikeouts, he's mixed in his change up a bit more, which seems to have helped him be more effective.  Here is his pitch selection from his four starts between May 8 and May 23:

Ben Sheets: Pitch selection - May 8 to May 23
TypeCountSelectionVelocity (mph)Vertical (in)Horizontal (in)

 And here is the effectiveness table:

Ben Sheets: Results by pitch type - May 8 to May 23
TypeCountSelectionStrikeSwingWhiffFoulIn Play
With his velocity down, perhaps permanently, it appears that Ben Sheets is learning to succeed with lesser stuff.  His curve is slower with a bigger break and he's using offspeed stuff much more frequently.  His control has not been what is once was, though, and that may be a bigger factor in his decreased effectiveness than his loss of velocity.  Still, there's hope that better command is in his future.  Pitchers coming back from prolonged absences frequently have their control come back to them last.

It remains to be seen if the A's $10 million investment will pay off.  While Ben Sheets will almost certainly be a different pitcher than he was before his most major injury, he may not be a worse pitcher thanks to a more balanced mix of pitches a better curve ball.

Note:  All data is from Texas Leaguers wonderful PITCH f/x database.

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